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Open Source: Social Media's Influence on Public Health

Is social media having a positive or negative impact on public health? 

It’s probably having more of a negative overall impact; people who use more social media tend to be more depressed, anxious and socially isolated. However, like many powerful new technologies, it’s a classic double-edged sword, and we’re learning more nuanced information about positive and negative uses for social media. Ultimately, this will help us empower people to use social media to enhance lives instead of inadvertently detracting from them.

Brian A. Primack, MD, PhD, is director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health at the University of Pittsburgh.


Social media often undercuts public health messages. It facilitated the spread of anti-vaccination sentiment and practice which is having a direct impact on vaccination coverage. Social media’s “flat” structure allows for almost anyone to present themselves as an expert on health and wellness, elevating fringe health practices with potentially dangerous effects.

Naomi Smith, PhD, is a program leader and Sociology lecturer with the School of Arts, Faculty of Education and Arts, Federation University Australia

Current research on social media analytics demonstrates more benefits than harms, and the technology brings exciting innovations to people’s lives, within and beyond public health. But like any technology, it can be misused. I contribute to the development of methods for detecting the presence and spread of social media misinformation. While these methods can mitigate potential negative impacts … society and each of us play a critical role in regulating and controlling social media’s uses.

Svitlana Volkova, PhD, is a senior scientist in the Data Sciences and Analytics Group, National Security Directorate, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and vice-chair for the ACM Future of Computing Academy.

Our capacity to generate and rapidly distribute information (and opinions) is greater than ever before. The public’s capacity to discriminate valid, authentic medical or public health content from sensational “clickbait,” however, has not kept pace with the exponential rise in content. Public health professionals recognize the need to engage in social media discourse, but few have been able to adapt authentic health messages to the short, catchy form required to capture and hold the public’s attention.

Alain Labrique, PhD ’07, MHS ’99, MS, is director of the JHU Global mHealth Initiative and an associate professor in International Health at the Bloomberg School. 

I don’t know. This technology … has brought people together, widened our social circles and enabled massive (positive) social and political change. It’s also driving us apart both politically and socially, and distracting us from people physically around us. While social media has been around for over a decade, we are only beginning to understand its effects. Will it lead to healthier communities and individuals? Or will it increase depression and real-world social isolation? Only time will tell.

Mark Dredze, PhD, MAis the John C. Malone Associate Professor in Computer Science at Johns Hopkins University.